The history of Indian handicrafts is an old saga.To peep in to the traces of Indian handicrafts we need to go back to almost 5000 years from now. The first references to Indian handicrafts can be found from the Indus Valley Civilization (3000 B.C.-1700 B.C.). The craft tradition in India has revolved around religious beliefs, local needs of the commoners, as well as the special needs of the patrons and royalty, along with an eye for foreign and domestic trade. These craft traditions have withstood the ravages of time and numerous foreign invasions and continue to flourish till date owing to the assimilative nature of Indian culture and broadmindedness of the handicraftsmen to accept and use new ideas. Indus Valley Civilization
The Indus valley civilization had a rich craft tradition as well as a high degree of technical excellence in the field of pottery making, sculpture (metal, stone and terracotta), jewelry, weaving etc. A lot of material information from excavations at Harappa, Mohen-jo-daro etc. substantiates the craft tradition of the Indus valley civilization. The craftsmen not only catered to all the local needs but surplus items were sent to ancient Arabian cultures via ancient sea routes.
The Indus Valley Civilization was followed by the Vedic age (1500 B.C.), when the Vedas were written. There are numerous references in the Vedas on artisans involved in pottery making, weaving, wood crafting etc. The Rig Veda in particular refers to a variety of pottery made from clay, wood and metal. It also refers to weavers and weaving
The concept of state was ushered by the rise of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century B.C. It is said that during the time of Ashoka 84,000 stupas were built in India, including the world famous Sanchi Stupa, which has beautiful stone carving and relief work done on it. Numerous sculptures from Bharhut, Mathura, Amravati, Vaishali, Sanchi etc show female figures adorned with an array of jewelry, which continues to inspire contemporary jewelry making. The iron pillars of Vaishali (Bihar) and Delhi, created during the time of Emperor Ashoka, are a marvel in the field of metallurgy.
Post Mauryan Age
The period between 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. was a period of political turmoil as a result of foreign invasions from central Asia. The impact of these intrusions can be seen in the Buddhist sculptures from Taxila, Begram, Bamiyan, Swat valley etc (all from the present day Pakistani North West Frontier province) which show a high degree of Greek influence. The depiction of Buddha, having curly hair and wearing draperies, until date is the result of this Greek influence. The sculpture of the Kushan king Kanishka from this period depicting him wearing leather boots and a heavy warm coat amply reflects the influence of the central Asian Culture on Indian craftsmanship. Jewelry, sculpture, textile making, leather products, metal working etc. were the main handicrafts that inherited these foreign influences and assimilated them in accordance with the Indian milieu.
The Gupta (AD 320-647) age is referred to as the classical period in Indian history. The points in the field of craft include the rock cut temples of Ellora and the Ajanta murals. These murals give us a realistic view of the lifestyle of that time. The craftsmen of this period, under royal patronage excelled in jewelry making, woodcarving, sculpture, stone carving and weaving.
The Medieval period of Indian history in the context of handicrafts showed a marked shift from north India to the Deccan and southern parts of the country, though the handicraftsmen under the Delhi Sultanate period flourished in the field of pottery, weaving, wood carving, metal working, jewelry etc. The contribution of the Cholas and the Vijaynagar Empire in the field of bronze sculpture, silk weaving, jewelry, temple carving is beyond parallel. The fine example of stone carving from central India can be seen in the form of the Khajuraho Temples, built by the Chandelas. Rich and ornate wood and stone carving can be found in medieval temple of Jagannath at Puri in Orissa.